An ecocelebrity -- preacher's daughter marks second year in tree


Friday, December 10th 1999, 12:00 am
By: News On 6


STAFFORD, Calif. (AP) -- Two years ago, a 23-year-old preacher's daughter climbed 180 feet into the branches of an old growth redwood, determined to save it from a woodsman's chain saw.

Since then, Julia Hill, known to her friends as Julia Butterfly, has changed her life. She has also tried to change the way people look at California's old forests through an Internet campaign and interviews with reporters around the world.

This month, one more thing may be changing: She may be coming down from the tree she calls Luna.

"My feet will not touch the ground until there is a signature on paper saying that they've protected the area but ... I'm cautiously hopeful," she said.

It wasn't clear when -- or if -- Hill's treetop vigil will end. In the past, she and the Pacific Lumber Co., owners of the property where Luna stands, have been close to a resolution only to have the deal stall.

Neither side will discuss specifics, but the proposed agreement reportedly would have Hill and her supporters paying $50,000 to the company in return for a logging ban at the treesitting site. The money would then be donated to Humboldt State University for forestry research. Pacific Lumber also wants signed statements from Hill that the company hopes will discourage copycats.

"We want her to be safe but we are not going to agree to anything that encourages treesitting, promotes treesitting, allows for the commercialization of treesitting or is unfair to our employees," said company spokesman Josh Reiss.

In March, Pacific Lumber and federal and state governments signed a $480 million deal to purchase an old-growth grove in the nearby Headwaters Forest and turn it into a public preserve.

Hill stayed put, disappointed that the deal does not go far enough to protect the forest and concerned that Luna is not in the protected area.

What she's missed most is the earth beneath her feet. "I can't imagine how incredible and magical it's going to feel just to be able to touch the solid earth again," she said.

On a cool fall day, the forest Hill calls home soars above the mists, thousands of dark green spires brushing against a pale gray sky. To the west, the Pacific hugs the sandy shoulders of the remote Lost Coast, 280 miles north of San Francisco.

Also visible is the red-brown scar of a mudslide that destroyed seven homes in the small community of Stafford. Activists blame the slide on clear-cut logging. The company says it was a natural occurrence.

At Luna's base, the only sound is the rushing murmur of the wind. About 15 feet across and more than 18 stories high, the tree is a vast, brown stretch of bark, one side of its trunk blackened and gouged, probably by fire.

Suddenly, the silence is broken as a supporter who goes by the name of "Spruce" lets out an eerie call, a signal that visitors have arrived.

Hill yodels back, then lowers a battered black bag containing a walkie-talkie over which she cheerily announces, "My phone's ringing. I'm going to grab it real quick and be right with you."

Hill doesn't have a lot of the comforts of home on her 6-by-8-foot platform. She cooks vegan meals -- those with no animal products -- on a propane stove, uses a bucket for a bathroom, takes sponge baths and is "never completely warm" on wintry days. But she's got a cell phone to keep in touch with the outside world;
supporters bring in batteries and food and take out her replies to the 300 or so people who write every week.

In spare moments she reads, writes and listens to a community radio station by way of a hand-cranked radio.

For exercise, she climbs the tree and, failing that, does sit-ups and push-ups. Dealing with wild winter storms and the dank, foggy cold -- takes "laughter, love, prayer -- and layers of clothing.

"Right now, I'm wearing three pants, three shirts, two jackets, two scarfs, a hat and gloves," she said Wednesday as temperatures hovered in the 40s.

She's been interviewed scores of times. She's been visited by actor Woody Harrelson and singers Bonnie Raitt and Joan Baez. She's written a book, "The Legacy of Luna," due out in April.

"I laugh hysterically every time someone thinks I'm bored or lonely, because I am busier than I have ever been in my entire life," she said.

Hill has her detractors -- a full-page ad in Thursday's Times-Standard of Eureka taken out by a self-described spokesman for The True Redwood Friends urged Pacific Lumber: "Do not let her win. Do not give in to eco-terrorism."

But she also has supporters like 28-year-old Anne Fitzpatrick, who made the uphill trek to the tree despite having had most of one lung removed in March.

"She really inspires me," said Fitzpatrick, who often logs on to Hill's Web site. "I sit in my living room ... and I think, `She's in the tree right now, right at this moment. She's cold and I'm here."'

What happens if Hill decides to come in from the cold?

Before she was a treesitter, Hill was learning the restaurant business in Fayetteville, Ark. That life ended with a near-fatal car wreck that sent her on a pilgrimage west to the woods.

She's not sure what she might do next, but expects it will have something to do with protecting the environment.

"I climbed up into this tree and in the eyes of the world, I was a nobody," she said. "Without my meaning to, I've become this figurehead, this spokesperson and that's opened up a lot of doors and possibilities."